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Surviving Michael Through Stories, Poetry, Art

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By Nikki Hedrick


Hurricane Michael’s impact is far greater than the sum of its parts.  There is the physical damage—the homes and businesses, the trees missing from the landscape, and the community gathering spots no longer safe to hold laughter or music. Then there are the people—the people who lost it all and continue to find ways to help, share and rebuild.


Panama City’s Tony Simmons is a well-respected journalist and supporter of the arts. Additionally, he is the author of multiple novels and a founding member of The Syndicate, a collaborative enterprise that gives storytellers an opportunity to see their ideas in print. The Syndicate usually specializes in what Simmons calls “urban fantasy,” but Hurricane Michael gave birth to a new anthology rooted deeply in reality, Survivors: Work Created in the Wake of Hurricane Michael.


“I’ve been writing as long as I can remember really,” says Simmons. “I was creating comic books when I was in kindergarten. I think I probably have ruined my son because he’s followed in those footsteps too. Writing is just in the blood. My mother is a writer. My dad did some writing. It’s just in the family.”

Simmons continued to write until he found his way into journalism. “I’ve been here with the News Herald for over 25 years now. We made our home here in Panama City, raised the kids here. I kept writing on the side, writing fiction, and managed to have a few things published.”


As Amazon created their self-publishing platform, Simmons embraced it as a way to continue releasing his ideas into the world, including a series of books under “The Caliban Cycle” moniker. “It is a story that has been in the back of my head since I was a teenager,” he says. “I’ve written and rewritten and rewritten for 40 years until I finally felt like I got it right and was able to publish the first book a few years back.”


Or, to put another way, “It’s part of the work that has haunted me through my life.”


The idea of The Syndicate was born out of friendship and a shared appreciation in the arts. “Over the years, you collect friends, and we would meet for lunches,” says Simmons. “I looked around the table one day and I said, ‘We’ve got writers and artists and graphic designers, and videographers and photographers and editors sitting at this table. We could do a project together.’


“And so, that was how The Syndicate started to form. Me and some friends that just wanted to do projects together. We all had similar interests in fantastic fiction, sci-fi, horror, and old pulp adventures, those sorts of things.”


That set the groundwork for the Adventures in the Arcane anthology in 2016, which now spans three volumes. Simmons calls the content “pulp adventure with a paranormal twist, sort of that fantasy and horror element mixed into good old adventure tales. Sort of what I guess would be the urban fantasy of today.”


What no one could have guessed was how The Syndicate would be used to document a natural disaster and its aftermath.


Simmons relates how the days after Hurricane Michael were full of difficulties. “We had no phone service, no Internet for days and days. I started trying to check in with my friends and family, and it was really difficult. It was a rough time, but eventually when I did have it, I could sit at the Publix, and use their Wi-Fi. We got on Facebook to let everybody know we had survived, check on people.


“Over the days, people started posting about their experiences. They were putting up photographs they had taken or poems they had written. A lady by the name of Jessica St. Hill, who is an actor, comedian and writer in this community created a Facebook page called The Art of Michael, and started collecting things people had written in response to the story or art they had made or photographs they had taken.”


Those were the seeds of the Survivors anthology. “I spoke to Jayson Kretzer, who was a member of The Syndicate, one of the founding members. I said, ‘We need to do something here. We could put these together in a book form and maybe do some good, raise some money, raise some awareness, remind people what’s going on here, and what people are going through. And at the same time, create a record of this moment in time because the further away we get from the storm, the more we’re going to try to put things in perspective, the more we’re going to be distant from the pain.’”


With the goal of the submissions retaining raw emotion, only a month transpired between the storm and the submission deadline. Simmons notes how the short deadline, when many still had limited Internet or outside communications, also prevented submitters from second guessing themselves.


“People who have read it have said that they almost read their own experiences in what our writers have created. They saw their own backgrounds in those pictures of downed trees, destroyed fences and broken houses. Even though each one of those stories is very individual, it’s also universal. We have all been traumatized by this in similar ways.”


Proceeds of Survivors will benefit the Northwest Florida United Way. “A local artist mentioned The United Way, that they were here helping organizations before the storm. They were hurt just like everybody else during the storm—bad damage to their buildings, but they’re going to be here after the storm, helping organizations all over town.”


Digital copies of Survivors are available via Amazon, and physical copies can be purchased at The Panama City Center for the Arts, which is doubling as an art gallery for local artists as numerous popular galleries sustained substantial damage.


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